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Thursday, May 20, 2004 11:19 am

Small victory

The Springfield Police Department won a battle with its recent roundup of 44 drug dealers. But officers know they’re still in for a long war.

Cover photograph by Nick Steinkamp

It's a warm spring day, and the kids across the street are pelting each other with water balloons. At least a dozen people, probably more, are present, ranging in age from the mid-twenties down to mere babes bouncing on their young mothers' knees. Their shouts and laughter drift through the open window of Clyde and Nancy Smith's living room, where the Smiths and their neighbor Ernestine Watts, sit reminiscing about how friendly this block used to be.

"We had lived on the south side of town for four years, and the day we moved out was the first time our neighbors talked to us," Nancy says. "We moved here, and the same day we moved in, Ernestine came over and talked to me."

She names several other former residents -- Mrs. Grimes, who sold Avon products; Mrs. Bianco, who had the most beautiful home; Mrs. Bonner, who vowed to live out the rest of her days in the neat little house next to the church on the corner. The Smiths became friends with most of their neighbors the day they arrived on East Jackson Street.

But eventually the core group of homeowners dispersed. Mrs. Grimes and Mrs. Bianco both died, and Mrs. Bonner's children moved her to a nursing home after two men broke into her house, tied her up, and robbed her. Other homeowners and heirs sold out to landlords who didn't seem to care who moved into the neighborhood.

The house with the water balloons, for example, is a scene of constant chaos. Clyde says the tenants -- he doesn't know their names -- throw empty soda bottles toward him whenever he goes outside to work on his car. "They do it just to get my attention," he says. "They think that really bothers me."

The soda bottles are nothing. It's the drug sales that upset the Smiths and their friend Ernestine Watts. These aren't their real names, because they don't want to rile the dealers who operate in their neighborhood.

Two weeks ago, in a major undercover operation dubbed Sudden Impact II, members of the Springfield Police Department arrested about 40 street-level drug dealers -- five from the house where the kids are throwing water balloons, just across the street from the Smiths'.

Even with those five dealers in custody, however, the neighborhood still has a lawless feeling. The Smiths can pinpoint at least eight other drug houses on their block, including the neighbor who supplied the five street-level dealers with the crack they unknowingly sold to the cops. That man was not arrested, nor was the other neighbor who creates the crack from cocaine, the Smiths say.

On this day, as an SPD cruiser rolls down East Jackson, the sound wafting across the street shifts from laughter to hostility. "Hit the squad car! Hit the squad car!" one man yells to the kids with the water balloons.

But inside the Smiths' house, Nancy cheers: "Our good guys are back."

To get an idea of the magnitude of Springfield's drug problem, ask the head of the SPD narcotics unit, Sgt. Ron Vose. When he assembles all of the drug-related tips called in to Crime Stoppers last year, the stack of pink papers is almost a foot high. When he stacks all the reports written by other police officers documenting drug-related incidents, he gets a pile that towers even higher.

But perhaps the clearest indication is the series of charts that line the wall of the narcotics unit office. Hand-lettered in small black print on laminated poster board, the charts first went up as a way to track locations where crack (or, in a few cases, cannabis) was reportedly being sold. Vose put up one poster board for each of SPD's eight beats, but soon had to add a second tier because all the addresses wouldn't fit on a single row of boards. Beat 300 -- the north half of the East Side -- consumes three boards by itself. Beat 400, just to the south of 300, takes up two. All together, more than 200 addresses are listed.

On another board, located by the door to Vose's office, addresses are written in red. Dubbed the "third-floor board," it's a list of complaints forwarded to him by the mayor, aldermen, and other powerful officials on Municipal Center East's third floor. Each of these complaints has a deadline for response, but Vose says the response is the same one everybody else gets: "Be patient. We're working on it."

Sudden Impact I, staged last summer, netted 38 arrests, more than 30 guilty pleas, and prison sentences totaling 250 years. Sudden Impact II, begun in mid-February, resulted in 44 arrests at 20 drug-vending locations. But Vose, the architect of both operations, is the first to admit that they represent only a small victory in Springfield's drug war.

"We do more apologizing than anything," he says. "I apologize to people every day of the week because we haven't done anything about the particular drug house in their neighborhood."

Soft-spoken and longhaired, Vose has spent much of his 26-year law-enforcement career working in narcotics. He has served on task forces ranging from local to federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A few years ago, while on loan to an Illinois State Police task force, he negotiated an undercover drug deal that netted more than 100 pounds of cocaine.

SPD, though, doesn't have the money or personnel to undertake large-scale undercover operations, Vose says. Shortly after he took over the narcotics unit in July 2002, the staff dwindled to only one other officer. He got three more plainclothes cops and another sergeant last spring, but says he could use at least twice that number.

With SPD's limited resources (Vose bought much of the high-tech equipment used in the undercover operation himself), the officers in the narcotics unit decided to focus their efforts on the street-level dealers. These small-time criminals are the most visible and, Vose says, the most disruptive to a neighborhood. "Drug dealers bring more to the neighborhood than just drugs. They bring all the collateral crime with them -- disorderly conduct, burglaries, thefts, assaults, and even homicides," he says.

He describes the Sudden Impact sweeps as old-fashioned "back-to-basics" operations, using sworn officers rather than paid informants. Everything his unit did was documented in redundant detail, to ensure prosecutors would have solid cases.

Working from the most promising leads, the officers composed a three-page operation plan for each address, starting with assigning a simple two-digit number to avoid broadcasting locations over police radio. Each transaction involved the entire team: An undercover officer would make the buy, then drive to a pre-arranged location to meet with other officers. One would place the drugs in an evidence envelope while another debriefed the undercover officer. Notes from that interview would be taped to the evidence envelope. Then the undercover officer would be given a $20 bill -- with the serial number already recorded and photocopied -- and the team would move to the next location to make another buy.

Often, a dealer would flag down the undercover officer. At some sites, the officer would roll up and ask, "Got any work?" which was current street slang for crack. (In Sudden Impact I, the popular phrase was "Are you on?"). Some drug houses were so busy, the officer had to wait in line. The whole process from one buy to the next took about half an hour.

"It was almost like an assembly line," Vose says.

But the job didn't end with the transaction. Each deal had to be memorialized with an official report; each dealer had to be identified. Only a handful turned out to be "FNU/LNU" (first name unknown/last name unknown), or, as the team calls them, "Fanoo Lanoos." Other officers -- especially Matt Fricke, the neighborhood police officer assigned to Beat 300 -- were able to identify most dealers by name.

Each purchase also had to be tested by the Illinois State Police crime lab, which agreed to expedite the process so that restless dealers wouldn't have time to move away. Most buys proved to be crack cocaine, but a few were only lookalike substances. One turned out to be Tylenol.

Finally, each sales location had to be mapped to show whether it was within 1,000 feet of a school, church or park. Sales in these "safe zones" are automatic felonies, with mandatory prison sentences. The SPD team used aerial photos to perform a rough measurement for each transaction, then later measured the distance for each one with a rolling ruler.

All of these reports -- the surveillance log, the lab results, the measurement data, and, of course, the three-page narrative -- had to be typed, proofread, and photocopied for the state's attorney. In a marathon workweek Vose dubbed "Code Red" (during which the team consumed gallons of high-caffeine soda), the officers organized and copied the paperwork for all 44 cases to be presented to the Sangamon County grand jury.

Indictments were handed up April 29, and SPD arrested most of the alleged dealers on April 30 in a daylong roundup. So many people were brought in that SPD had to borrow one bay of Springfield Fire Department's downtown station to use as a temporary processing center.

Sudden Impact II gave local government officials the chance to show they're doing something to combat drugs and clean up the East Side. A few days after the sweep, Mayor Tim Davlin, SPD Chief Don Kliment and State's Attorney John Schmidt held a press conference to announce the arrests.

One person who wasn't impressed, however, is Brian Otwell, chief public defender of Sangamon County and the lawyer who will likely end up representing most of the alleged drug dealers. He believes that most of the people arrested were not big-time dealers, just users trying to support their own habits. The fact that most of the buys were made within 1,000 feet of a school, church or park -- making the suspects ineligible for probation -- distresses Otwell even more. The East Side has so many schools and churches, practically the entire neighborhood could qualify as one of these legally mandated safe zones, he says.

"It makes the police and the state's attorney's office look like they're doing something to address the problem, which they claim is the source of a lot of complaints from people on the East Side," Otwell says. "And I don't doubt that it's a problem, but sending addicts to prison, where they're not liable to get effective treatment, I don't think, is the answer.

"There's a significant portion of these cases where the person has only minor, if any, criminal records, from what I know. And typically any judge would be willing to grant them probation and give them a chance at drug treatment," Otwell says. "But because of this law, this aggravating factor -- which, in my opinion, is aggravating in more ways than one -- the state's attorney holds the key to the jail cell, and they're not giving these people a chance. And I disagree with that."

Steve Knox, executive director of Triangle Center, where crack addicts account for almost 15 percent of the 1,400 clients treated there each year, understands Otwell's argument, especially in light of the long waiting period (four months at Triangle) for the few available treatment beds.

But Knox says that in general, such roundups are beneficial to the community. After all, addicts who complete treatment at Triangle deserve to be able to return to their homes without the daily temptation of seeing their favorite drugs being sold next door.

"As part of their treatment, we examine their support system and work very hard with them to get them to recognize that if they can, they need to get away from [handy access to drugs]. But a lot of the people we treat are indigent and don't live in the best neighborhoods," he says. "Support structure is a major problem for many of them. It's an environmental problem. So if you can't get away from it, we have to build you up so that you're strong enough to resist."

Deidra Lockhart, a social worker who grew up on the East Side, is founder and president of the Spears-Wilson-Edwards Neighborhood Association. She knows several of the arrested individuals well enough to have some opinion about who's an addict and who's a hardened criminal.

"Some are addicts, some aren't. Some of the so-called hardened criminals are convicted of crimes that go back to their addictions," she says. "I think they should take cases on an individual basis and look at the overall picture instead of homing in on the 1,000-foot thing. If you're being led by an addiction, I think that should be taken into consideration."

But Ron Vose, the narcotics sergeant, sees the 1,000-foot regulation as a way to maximize the effect of his small staff, and he rejects the notion that the sweep netted mainly addicts.

"We came up with some people you wouldn't have thought would be out selling $20 rocks. Some are almost career criminals," Vose says. The state's attorney's office confirms that two of the men arrested in the recent sweep had murder convictions, and one had a federal felony drug conviction.

Regardless, Vose makes no apology for arresting dealers who may use more of their product than they sell.

"I think each addict is a walking crime spree because he's not going to go across town to steal a CD player to get another $20 rock that'll only keep him high for an hour," Vose says. "He's only going to go two doors down."

When Freaky cruises around the East Side, he drives slowly, never wears a seat belt, always carries a gun. A bottle of Pepsi is propped between his legs, and a big bag of M&Ms is wedged in the car door. He keeps the windows of the Black Bubble, his old Chevy Caprice, rolled down. Shouts of "Freaky! Freaky! Hey, Freaky! There's Freaky!" greet him wherever he goes.

Some greetings sound friendly, others don't. But everybody knows Freaky, and he knows everybody.

"That's my job," he says. "I don't think you can really be a very good officer here if you can't learn faces and names."

Freaky is the SPD neighborhood police officer assigned to the East Side. His name is actually Matt Fricke (rhymes with "tricky"), but he doesn't take offense at the variation. He has spent almost his entire 10-year police career working in this neighborhood -- as "directed patrol," as a member of the now-defunct gang unit, and as a member of the narcotics unit -- and he has no desire to work any other type of duty.

"I could work on the West Side, but I would miss the person-to-person interaction," he says, as he maneuvers his car around a group of young mothers strolling their babies. "This is the only place to work. It's more active, there's more to do, and it keeps you busy. You can't necessarily say that you're making a difference, but you feel like you're helping people who legitimately need your help, and you're actually taking bad guys to jail. I'm comfortable over here. I like the people."

Not only is the affection genuine, it's also mutual. Many of the people exchanging friendly greetings with Fricke are folks he has taken into custody in the past, and he sees no irony in that fact. "Just because you arrest somebody doesn't mean you don't like them," he says.

He is also loved by the law-abiding citizens of the neighborhood. He takes countless calls from residents with particular complaints, such as Clyde and Nancy Smith and Ernestine Watts, who have his office, pager, and cell-phone numbers programmed into speed dial on every phone they own. "I don't blame them for feeling frustrated," he says. "They've got real problems over here on East Jackson Street."

On this night, East Jackson is relatively quiet. The tenants who rented the house where the five buys were made apparently spent the weekend moving out.

As he drives around, Fricke makes frequent calls to dispatch, checking for warrants on gang members out on the street. If he finds so much as a traffic warrant, he has an excuse to pat the guy down. This method paid off handsomely earlier in the day, when he found a man carrying $1,500 in cash and 10 grams of crack cocaine. The man was out on bond for an earlier arrest in which he was found to have 28 grams of crack. Both times, traffic warrants were what gave Fricke the right to conduct a search.

But he uses his powers judiciously. He doesn't antagonize the drunk napping on the side of the road, just rouses him and encourages him to head for home. He doesn't hassle the man riding his bike on the sidewalk, even though he would be within his rights to do so.

And when he makes an arrest, he favors the gentle approach. "All anybody wants is to be treated like a normal person," he says.

Fricke has discovered that this strategy brings a bonus. "It seems like the more people you arrest, the more respect you get. Nobody wants to be arrested by a rookie. They'd rather say, 'Aw, the gang unit got me.' "

In the recent Sudden Impact sweep, Fricke played several crucial roles. He helped the narcotics unit zero in on active drug houses. When the undercover officers made their buys, he helped identify the dealers. And when the indictments were handed up, he helped take the suspects into custody. Yet on this night, as he drives up to a house on East Kansas Street where four alleged drug dealers were arrested, he is greeted with smiles and waves.

Deidre Lockhart, the neighborhood-association leader, says Fricke has discovered the simple secret to gaining respect. "He gets respect because he gives it," she says.

Five drug buys in Sudden Impact II were made near a little church called Key of David Ministries. It's located across the street from a tavern, on a corner of East Jackson Street. The church, founded in 2001, is a nondenominational venture with "transitional living" quarters above the sanctuary. Pastor Gary Pierce says they had a big turnout on Mother's Day, with 18 people in attendance.

That's the good news. The bad news is that two of the transitional-living clients were recently attacked by neighborhood thugs. In one incident, the client's bicycle was stolen; in the other, the toughs took the resident's wallet.

"Word was out that he was going to get it as soon as he stepped off the porch," Pierce says. "If they caught him away from the church, they were going to jump him, because they knew he was the one calling the police. I tried to tell him to be careful. I told him go smoke in the back. But he wanted to smoke in the front."

Pierce, who says he has the gift of prophecy, is only mildly surprised to hear that SPD Officer Matt Fricke considers this stretch of East Jackson "the worst block in Springfield."

"Maybe that's why the Lord put us over here. The Lord knows what's needed," Pierce says.

At the other end of the block lives Ernestine Watts, who is also an ordained minister. She often takes the neighborhood kids to church. In the early-morning hours, when many neighbors are still asleep, Watts walks up and down the street, praying for the neighborhood.

Clyde and Nancy Smith live in the middle of the block. They say it's like living in the TV show Cops, only without commercial interruptions.

"We've seen everything," Clyde says. "Everything that's ever happened on that TV show, we've seen in this neighborhood.

"One night, about a year ago, we were sitting here and they busted this house and that boarded-up house next to it," he says, pointing to two of his closest neighbors. "We were sitting here watching an Illinois basketball game, and we heard a percussion grenade go off. Then the power went out on the whole street. I ran out my back door to see what was happening, and there were two police officers standing there with M-16s. One of them motioned me 'Go back in the house!' and you can bet what I did -- I went right back in the house!"

They've seen fistfights and even gunfights in the middle of the street. They've seen scores of people gather to watch two girls fight, and crowds gather to wager on pit-bull matches. They've seen prostitution, gambling, and drag racing on their street, and they've been offered stolen goods for sale.

One night they were awakened by the sound of machine-gun fire. The shooter was standing just outside their bedroom window, aiming at the house across the street. "You can still see the bullet holes," Clyde says.

They don't blame the cops for this situation. As homeowners, they blame other property owners who rent these small houses out to tenants who haven't been properly screened. "The one thing we complain about more than anything else is the landlords. The landlords in our neighborhood care nothing about anything," Clyde says.

He's right. A Freedom of Information Act request filed with the city for housing violations on the Smith's block resulted in a phone call from the city's FOIA officer. "I could copy this, but you might want to come down here," he said. "There's well over 1,000 pages here."

The violations range from high weeds to "failure to remove solid waste" to "unsafe structure" to a basement flooded with raw sewage. A pattern emerges in which a few houses have no garbage service and their occupants instead store waste in inoperable vehicles or outbuildings. With landlords like that, no wonder drug dealers are allowed to move in.

The Smiths have reacted by turning their back yard into an oasis of tranquility. There are neat beds of flowers and a vegetable garden, a grill and a fireplace surrounded by benches.

"We spend 98 percent of our time out here," Clyde says.

But despite all the drama on their block, the Smiths say nothing really bad has ever happened to them in all the years they've lived on East Jackson Street. Sure, their son had his bike stolen, and another time someone took a scooter. But the scooter was broken anyway, and the bicycle was returned. Their house is paid for, and Clyde has almost finished fixing it up just the way he wants it.

"Why should we give up our home?" he asks. "I've put a lot of work into this house, and I've got it looking pretty nice, not everything the way I want it, but . . . I mean, we shouldn't have to give up our homes so that these people can sell drugs. And you know what? We'll fight, you know what I mean?"

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